Nikon Coolpix L4 Overview
by Dan Havlik and Shawn Barnett
Review posted: 09/07/2006
A little lower down on Nikon's Coolpix line, the new 4.0 megapixel L4 has the look and feel of a more expensive digital camera. The Coolpix L4 goes for $199.95, while the flagship model of the Nikon L series, the L2 sells for $249.95. The 4MP L4, which drops a few features, sells for $149.95. Whoever revamped the Coolpix line this past year definitely deserves kudos -- all of the new Nikon models introduced at the PMA convention in Florida earlier this year look like they've spent some time in the gym. For a camera that takes double AA batteries, the Nikon L4 is one of the slimmest I've seen with a curving light silver metallic chassis that feels great in your hand.
Along with a 4.0MP CCD image sensor, the Nikon Coolpix L4 has a 3x optical zoom lens, a 2-inch LCD screen and Nikon's helpful Feature System which includes D-Lighting to improve underexposed photos; Face Priority AF; In-Camera Cropping; and Best Shot Selector which lets you take a series of photos and picks out the one with the sharpest focus. Because it's aimed at beginners, the Nikon L4 also has oodles of Scene Modes, 14 in all with four with Scene Assist to help you compose your pictures. What do you give up on an entry-level camera like this? Read on and find out more.
Note: This review is very similar to the Coolpix L2 and L3 review, so if you've already read those, we recommend you scroll down to the Pro/Con and Conclusion, and check out the test results in the Optics, Exposure, and Performance tabs.
Nikon Coolpix L4 User Report
Nice Curves. Along with being about $150 less than last year's L1, the Nikon Coolpix L4 is about a half inch slimmer than the older model. This is largely due to the Nikon L4's 3x optical zoom, while the L1 had a longer 5x zoom. The Nikon L4 nips and tucks its edges to give a much more generally curvy look compared to the L1's boxy traditional body, but unlike the L2 and L3, the L4 has a large protrusion for its lens body, while the latter two have lenses that recede flush when closed. Still, the wavy profile is echoed across the new Coolpix line and is best exemplified by the ultra-slim S5 and S6 models.
Though it's made primarily of polycarbonate, the Nikon Coolpix L4's bright metallic silver chassis has a nice ceramic-on-metal feel to it, accentuated by a chrome band that rounds up on the left side to the top of the camera. The slight swell on the right side of the Nikon L4 -- from the user's perspective -- provides a good handgrip and the solid metal shutter button is satisfying to press. At 3.4 x 2.4 x 1.4-inches (86.5 x 60.5 x 34.5mm), the Nikon Coolpix L4 is small enough to fit in a purse or handbag, and at just 5.1 ounces (145 grams) with the batteries and memory card, it won't weigh you down. For my money, this is one of the best looking cameras in its price range. On the flip side, its buttons are a bit small, and the zoom rocker really could have been wider to make zooming easier.
The screen is decent, with 115,000 pixels, but where most digital cameras hide the image data after showing it to you for a few seconds on the screen, the Nikon Coolpix L4's LCD defaults to a setting that only shows the photo with the info. Because there's so much data -- good for photo junkies but not necessarily the typical novice Nikon L4 user -- it clutters up the screen making it difficult to see the picture. Though you can change the setting in the menu system, it's more complicated than it should be, requiring you to go to Set Up and then choose Monitor Setting and then make the adjustment. The alternative, however, is to have playback of images without any info. A "show and hide" setting would have been preferable. On the other hand, scroll speed is pretty quick and the camera transitions into its multi-frame playback with just a tap on the zoom rocker. Unlike the L2 and L3, the L4 has no audio function, neither mic nor speaker for recording audio or video with audio.
No Speedy Gonzales. Unlike the L2, the L4 powers on a little more slowly, taking 2.7 seconds to power on and capture a first shot. After you snap a shot, the camera takes about a two seconds to write the image to the SD memory card. Playing the image back on the screen after it's captured also seems to take eons -- 3.4 seconds actually, according to our lab tests. This might have been excusable a couple of years ago but in these days of the revved up image processor, it is noticeably slow. Images already stored on the card take more than a second to be shown; surprising given the LCD's lower resolution. The Nikon Coolpix L4's shutter lag numbers when capturing images at its widest zoom setting are below average for this category at 0.85 seconds.
Things got worse at full telephoto, though, with shots captured at just 0.93 second. A word about the zoom though. It's one of the slower and noisier zooms I've tested recently, emitting a high-pitched whine as it slowly zooms out -- almost like an old video security camera. While the Nikon Coolpix L4 is a lower-end model and I wasn't expecting top-of-the-line Nikkor Silent Wave technology, other cameras I've tested in this class have had quieter and quicker zooms.
Good Quality, Limited Control. Despite its speed issues, image quality on the Nikon L4 under adequately lit conditions is good. The camera also showed good dynamic range for an entry-level model. The 3x Zoom-Nikkor (38-114mm, in 35mm format) was less sharp in the corners than the L3, but about on par with the L2.
With the Nikon L4, the camera pretty much stays locked into ISO 50. However, when lighting is poor and the flash is not engaged, the camera will show an ISO icon on the screen and automatically boost the ISO. The range is limited, though, capping off at just ISO 200. With most entry-level cameras offering ISO of up to at least 400 -- and some higher-end compact models offering ISO 1,600 and beyond -- it's disappointing that the Nikon Coolpix L4 offers the same limited light sensitivity range as the previous generation model, the L1. Though ISOs and light sensitivity might seem complicated to beginning users, with picture-takers getting tired of blowing out their subjects with flash, it would have been nice for Nikon to offer more low-light shooting capabilities on the Nikon L4. At the very least, a manually selectable ISO sensitivity rating of up to ISO 400 would've been acceptable. The Nikon Coolpix L4's flash range of 1 - 9 feet (0.3-3.9m) at the wide end and 1 - 5 feet, 9 inches (0.3 - 1.75m) telephoto is adequate for snapshooting purposes.
Special Nikon Settings. A strong selling point for the Coolpix line is Nikon's Feature System which includes In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF and D-Lighting. In-Camera Red-Eye Fix combines a pre-flash with in-camera processing to reduce red-eye in portraits. In Face Priority AF, which is the real gem of the system, a yellow smiley face appears on the screen and then locks into a box when it detects a face. The only apparent blip in the technology is that since it detects the presence of two eyes, it cannot lock in a profile, only a face that is looking straight at the camera. On the Nikon Coolpix L4, Face Priority AF is accessed through the Portrait Mode. D-Lighting works in playback mode as a virtual "fill-in flash" to increase brightness and clarity in underexposed areas of a picture by automatically adding light and detail where needed. This is also a fairly effective feature for beginners but should only be used for images that are slightly underexposed. Images with extremely dark shadow areas will become noisy after being adjusted with D-Lighting. The Nikon Coolpix L4 also has a blur warning setting -- which is the default -- that tells you if your images are out of focus before you save them.
Though manual controls, particularly ISO adjustments, are extremely limited on the Nikon Coolpix L4, the camera still has a rich and varied group of special scene modes. Switching into Scene Mode is simple -- just adjust the mode switch on the back to where it says SCENE, and you're ready to shoot. Because there are so many scene modes -- as well as variations on a few -- make sure you know which setting you're in. The new Coolpix line features a revamped GUI (Graphic User Interface) that's an improvement on the previous version. The GUI is pleasing to look at with black and gray selections highlighted yellow as your scroll through, or you can select your own colors. Thought some of the iconography is difficult to understand, there are descriptions at the top of the screen in fonts that are easy to read. There's also a setting to make the menus text-driven rather than icon-driven, depending on the user's preference. I recommend the Text setting because it's clearer.
Four of the special scene modes on the Nikon L4 have Scene Assist -- Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait. Scene Assist is a selection option that helps the user compose pictures with the help of framing guides displayed on the monitor. There are also 11 advanced Scene Modes -- Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night landscape, Close up, Museum, Firework show, Copy, Back light and Panorama assist. There's also a BSS (Best Shot Selector) mode. Though actual manual control is lacking, these tools make the Nikon Coolpix L4 flexible in a variety of conditions, providing relatively worry-free operation.
The Nikon L4's Movie mode, which is accessed by turning the mode switch to the movie camera icon, is okay for an entry level camera offering up to 640 by 480 resolution at 15 frames per second, but with no sound, in its "TV Quality Movie Mode." If you want audio, I recommend the L2 or L3.
The Nikon L4 uses two AA-sized batteries for power, either alkaline, Lithium, or NiMH type. Two alkaline batteries come with the camera, but I strongly advise picking up a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger, and keeping a spare set freshly charged at all times. Based on CIPA standards, the Nikon Coolpix L4 can capture up to 250 images with a pair of alkaline batteries. With AA NiMH rechargeable batteries, however, capacity rises to 450 images. AA lithium batteries on the L4 yielded even better results at 600 images.
Does It Stack Up? Compared to some competing entry-level models that take AA batteries the new Nikon Coolpix L4 has very limited manual control particularly when it comes to ISO light sensitivity adjustment. The L4 makes up for its lack of control, however, with a robust automatic feature set that's helps make picture-taking easier for the entry-level shooter. Still, it's not the fastest camera in its class, and the Nikon L4's images are really only suitable for 5x7 or 4x6, due to significant noise in the images. Consider the price, and it's not bad, but we saw much better performance from the L3, which seems to be the sweet spot in the L-series lineup.
- 4.0 megapixel CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,272 x 1,704 pixels
- 2-inch color LCD display
- 3x, 6.3-18.9mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-114mm lens on a 35mm camera)
- Maximum aperture f/2.8-f/4.9, depending on lens zoom position
- Shutter speeds from 1/3,000 to four seconds
- 4x Digital zoom
- Automatic exposure control
- Built-in flash with five modes
- 10MB internal memory
- SD memory card storage
- Power supplied by AA rechargeable batteries, or optional AC adapter
- Nikon Picture Project software for both Mac and Windows
- Icon or Menu interface with Help (Tele) button
- Face Priority AF to focus on faces automatically
- QuickTime movies (without sound)
- Continuous Shooting, and Multi-Shot 16 mode
- Fourteen preset Scene modes, including four with scene assistance
- D-Lighting for in-camera optimization of dark images
- Best Shot Selector for handheld shots
- Blur warning tells you if your images are out of focus before you save them
- Self-timer for delayed shutter release
- Macro (close-up) lens adjustment
- White balance (color) adjustment with seven modes
- ISO equivalent sensitivity 50 with auto gain to 200
- PictBridge compatibility
- DCF, DPOF, and Exif 2.2 support
- USB cable for quick connection to a computer
- Video cable for connection to a television set
In the Box
The Nikon Coolpix L4 ships with the following items in the box:
- Nikon L4 digital camera
- Wrist strap
- Audio Video cable
- USB cable
- Two alkaline AA batteries
- CD-ROMs loaded with Nikon Picture Project software and reference manual, and drivers
- Quick Start Guide, Guide to Digital Photography and registration kit
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. These days, 256 to 512MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Two sets of NiMH AA batteries and a charger
- AC Adapter
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
For an entry-level camera, the Nikon Coolpix L4 does a passable performance, with a 4.0-megapixel CCD sensor, a reasonable 3x Nikkor optical zoom, and improved overall ergonomics. For the novice shooter, the Nikon L4 has a good feature set which along with Nikon's D-Lighting, Face Priority AF, and Best Shot Selector, has 14 scene modes including four with Scene Assist. As a basic snapshooter, the L4 will serve just fine, capturing images sharp enough for 5x7, with punchy color.
The camera is a bit on the slow side, lagging behind some of its competitors in shot to shot speed and overall shutter response. The camera's lens is also slow and noisy when zooming out to the full 3x. While automatic controls were good, there's very little manual override on the Nikon Coolpix L4, particularly relating to ISO light sensitivity adjustment. Anyone who likes killing the flash and cranking up the ISO so they can take pictures in low light will be disappointed with the Nikon L4 which has its default ISO set to 50. In poor lighting when flash is turned off, the camera will auto gain up -- there is no manual adjustment -- to a maximum of ISO 200, which is less than adequate for shooting in most low light situations, and way too noisy.
While I understand Nikon is aiming this camera at novice and first-time users who might not want much manual control, some flexibility would be appreciated especially considering that many competing models not only offer manual ISO control these days, but even Shutter and Aperture Priority in their entry-level models. The Nikon Coolpix L4 is a mixed bag with enough good qualities to warrant a modest recommendation, but with the qualification that you only expect 4x6 images out of it, 5x7 max. If that's all you ever print, you should be reasonably happy with the L4 in daylight or close-range flash conditions indoors. Otherwise, Nikon does have better cameras to choose from, with the sweet spot being the L3.